Circles and Squares: The Lives and Loves of the Hampstead Modernists by Caroline Maclean

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Review by Karen Langley

The early part of the 20th century was a period when modern art was flourishing. New ways of living were being explored, abstract art forms were developing and a clean, new aesthetic was shaking up architecture. You would be forgiven for thinking that all these developments came from mainland Europe: the Bauhaus in Germany, Constructivism in Russia and Cubism in France. Yet it’s often overlooked that British artists were deeply involved in the modernist movements; and Caroline Maclean’s book Circles and Squares sets out to put the record straight. 

Maclean’s book is centred on the power couple, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, with their relationship, life and work running through the story. As the book opens the two have just got together, leaving behind them the wrecks of their marriages. In the circle around them are British artists and writers who include Henry Moore, Paul Nash, John Piper and Herbert Read. They create studios in Parkhill Road, Hampstead and explore new ways of living, in buildings with serviced flats containing modern furnishings; form groups like Unit One; and publish groundbreaking magazines like Axis.

The list of artists involved in Maclean’s story is impressive, and as well as developing new art forms, they also seemed to be searching for new kinds of relationship. Marriages break up, affairs flourish and then founder, all against the backdrop of battles between abstract and surrealist art. As is so often the case, it seems that the male artists fared better in many ways, with their ability to abandon both wives and children quite easily; and Ben Nicholson’s ricocheting between his wife Winifred and lover Hepworth is obviously painful for all concerned, despite their attempts to be calm and civilised about it. 

Maclean structures her book in an interesting way; she opens with Hepworth, Nicholson and their coming together, and then each following chapter focuses on a different set of characters and how their lives intersect with those of the central players. So one deals with Gropius and his friends, another with Herbert and Ludo Read, and yet another on the major publications, Axis and Circle. It’s a clever way to approach what is actually quite a complex network of relationships and enables Maclean to draw into her story people such as poet Louis Macneice, whom I might not have expected to encounter in this book. 

The 1920s and 1930s were of course a time of great change, following the devastation of the First World War. The visions of the new ways of living which Maclean reveals in her book are very idealistic, but it struck me as I was reading how often utopian dreams depend on the input of others. Maclean acknowledges this, describing the main players as middle class (though I would put them edging a little above that) and it’s clear that their plan for day to day living, with all the menial tasks done for them so that they could get on with their art, would require hours of silent labour behind the scenes by others, probably women… It’s a knotty problem, one tackled in more recent times in different ways; for example, in communes like Twin Oaks, where all members labour in some way to support the community. Whether this is workable is not for discussion here; but it’s hard not to think that much of the artists’ desire to do nothing but work, as well as having families and having everything done for them, could perhaps be seen as unrealistic and even a little selfish. 

One of the most intriguing elements of the story of the Hampstead Modernists is the number of European artists drawn into their orbit. I was fascinated to learn that Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, spent some years in England working with the group; and the pioneer of abstract art, Piet Mondrian, passed through as things became more difficult for artists in mainland Europe. In fact, the cross-fertilisation of ideas between creators in England and Europe was a particularly interesting factor in the book; and although the influences of movements like the Bauhaus on designs of the 1930s is fairly obvious, I hadn’t been aware there was so much direct contact between those involved.

As the book comes to an end, the underlying tensions of 1930s Europe begin to encroach upon the various artists; Mondrian and Gropius (and several others) head to the USA as the assault of the Nazis on civilised Europe becomes worse; and when war breaks out, Hepworth and Nicholson flee to St. Ives, where life becomes more a case of survival than anything else. The movement splinters, and Maclean rounds up the various players’ later lives in a useful epilogue.

Circles and Squares is very wide-ranging, drawing in a quite dazzling array of artistic figures from the era; and in fact, that may be where the book falls down a little. As it moves away from the central core of Hepworth, Nicholson and their colleagues to include those who only touch on their lives a little, it struggles to encompass so much. The narrative becomes perhaps a little overloaded, where a leaner approach and some editing would have given it a narrower focus which could have worked better. The book also assumes a certain amount of foreknowledge by the reader, and while I am familiar with the names of most of the players, a little more background and context might have helped. The light breezy tone conveys much of their lively lives but perhaps falls down a little when it comes to drawing conclusions about the importance and impact of their work. These are seriously important practitioners in the context of 20th century art, and yet at times that element seems lost in tales of bed-hopping and relationships.

However, I did end the book convinced that the many members of the group deserve much more discussion and appreciation than they perhaps receive nowadays, and also with a long list of new artists and writers to investigate. The book is copiously illustrated, with a really good selection of black and white photos incorporated into the text, a most useful element in a book about visual art. Circles and Squares is an excellent introduction to the Hampstead Modernist group and their work, and a useful starting point from which to jump off into a deeper exploration of the artists and their achievements. 

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks modernist design has never been bettered!

Caroline Maclean, Circles & Squares: The Lives & Art of the Hampstead Modernists (Bloomsbury, 2020). 978-1408889688 296pp, paperback.

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  1. These are a group of artists whose work I am very keen on so I think I’d find the book of interest. I also live in the area (though to my view most of the ones you mention did NOT live in Hampstead, but in Belsize Park/Haverstock). I think you are too kind to the selfish artists who wanted to only do their work (i.e. their choice) in the Two Oaks community. Perhaps the most enduring visible evidence (apart from Blue Plaques) of the Modernists is the wonderfully restored Isokon Flats designed by the engineer Wells Coates. This building, in Belsize Park not Hampstead, had a number of Bauhaus emigrees, Gropius, Breuer and Moholy-Nagy, as well as Agatha Christie living there in the 1930’s.

    Thank you for your interesting review.

  2. Thank you and most welcome. The artists are a really fascinating group, although I think she does spread her net a little widely and tries to encompass too many – a tighter focus or a longer book might have helped. The Isokon flats feature prominently in the book (as does Wells Coates), and I would love to visit/live there… All the people you mention do appear in the book (and some have a regular part to play) so it sounds like you are already well clued up on Modernist history!

  3. Very interesting to read your piece on this, and I particularly appreciate your openness about the book’s strengths and limitations. It’s useful to be aware of the caveats, especially your point about the benefits of some advanced knowledge of the artists. I still need to get to Romantic Moderns, which is currently sitting on my shelves. So I’ll start there and see how I get on.

    1. This sounds like a good overview and I’m tempted by the illustrations!

      1. It’s a good introduction Liz – the illustrations are b/w and embedded in the text, though I don’t know how they were done in the hardback. They certainly enhanced the reading of the book, and I think i’d like to explore the movement further with perhaps a glossier volume! 😀

    2. It does have many strengths as Maclean obviously knows her subjects and has done much research. I wish in a way the book had been longer, to allow her to expand on many of the artists and the aspects of her story. I’ll be interested to see what you think about it if you get to it after Romantic Moderns!

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